In 2015, Chris “Star Lord” Pratt went on Conan and laid out a nihilist philosophy of green screen acting:
The face that you give … is really, just you should do nothing … If they cut to a birthday cake, the audience should think, I think he’s hungry for birthday cake. But instead, they cut to a 60-foot dinosaur chasing you. I bet he’s scared right now. The music helps and the edits and all that stuff …
In short, Pratt offered a Kuleshovian formulation of how to act in movies like Marvel’s, the kind that made him a star. (A year prior to Guardians of the Galaxy [James Gunn], in 2013, Pratt made his hard-bod debut in Zero Dark Thirty [Kathryn Bigelow], and, a year after Guardians, in 2015, he headlined Jurassic World [Colin Trevorrow].) Pratt’s blankness is hardly an avant-garde critique of the numbness of modern life, though it is probably a symptom. He is, simply, staying out of the way, letting the dazzling set of computer-generated effects have their star moment. (Supervillains, by contrast, must ham it up, with the expectation that the CGI team will turn their hokey tree-branch arms into fabulous lightning rods.)
Not all actors can hack it. This presentational school of performance—supplemented by effects, to be added later—trips up actors accustomed to drawing on emotional memory or establishing characters’ motivations. By their own accounts, both Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed struggled on the respective sets of Spiderman: No Way Home (Jon Watts, 2021) and Venom (Ruben Fleischer, 2018). As Ahmed explained to Variety: “I’m saying I had not learned yet how to bring myself to those movies. Those films teach you stamina, technical craft, and it is a skill to be able to eke out your artistry in that setting.”
And what a setting it is. A once-independent studio incorporated into the Disney-Lucas-ABC umbrella in 2009, Marvel has established its own cinematic universe; if it isn’t the cosmic destiny of all film culture and industry, it comes scarily close. Hired to carry the burden of this blockbuster storytelling is a motley crew of beefcakes, hotties, and respected character actors, the latter of whom, in the not-so-distant past, might have declined to be cast in a superhero movie. Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Ethan Hawke, even Julia Louis-Dreyfus (the Meryl Streep of the TV sitcom)—the list continues. Marvel accrues quality associations by hiring the most sought-after film and television actors in Hollywood, while the performers get money and eyeballs and money. Marvel has become a latter-day MGM, with as many stars there are in the night sky. Their ideal contract player is replaceable, as versatile as a void.
Laying aside any gushy press releases from the studio or the performer side—and without behind-the-scenes, Sony Hack-level disclosures—audiences can surmise what Marvel really thinks of actors by examining the stories they tell. Marvel filling up its dance card with the buzziest stars in Hollywood does not translate to valuing acting in all its wild complexity. In fact, studio chief Kevin Feige might have a surprising lot in common with directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Bresson, who referred to actors as “cattle” and “brute material,” respectively. But the difference between the Auteur’s Vision and the studio’s “Masterplan” is not just one of high art versus middlebrow; it is one of scope and scale. Is the actor a prop or a puzzle piece, and how does that figure into the craft of it all?
Marvel’s attitude toward artistry with all the interiority eked out, to borrow Ahmed’s phrasing, is encapsulated by Ben Kingsley’s Trevor Slattery. Introduced in Iron Man 3 (Shane Black, 2013), Slattery is a bad actor in every sense of the word. When audiences meet him, it is as the Mandarin, an Arab terrorist who fits every Orientalist trope: inscrutable, stylish, chilling. But Slattery is a front, a bribable ne’er-do-well motivated by pills and women, utterly uninterested in the global order or the safety of millions. Worst of all, he’s an actor. Slattery returns as comic relief and franchise continuity in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2021), in which he is shocked that anyone else can see his pet “chicken-pig,” Morris. “They can see you – you’re real! All this time I thought I was hallucinating!” he crows, an exchange that translates obliquely as a statement on CGI acting. Doesn’t Kingsley look, as the British say, a bit mad, emoting over a green butterball turkey?
And in the original short, All Hail the King (Drew Pearce, 2014), produced in 2014 as a Blu-Ray extra, Slattery’s inability to grasp the ‘full picture’ becomes the story’s focus. A pompous hack, pretentiously reciting actorly cliches without knowing what they mean, he both is and isn’t Method, both does and doesn’t want attention, and claims that his failed foray into sitcom acting was because the show was “too sophisticated for [the network].” (He plays a former KGB agent whose partner is a vodka-drinking monkey.)
But when Slattery says, “When an actor tells you he’s ‘done the research,’ it means he’s switched on his computer, googled his own name, and had a quick wank,” what is Marvel saying about the ability of the actor to perform ethically, and how does the studio imagine its own responsibilities to the world? In the All Hail the King’s action-fight conclusion, Slattery can’t seem to grasp that the genre of the film has changed, from vanity project-documentary to franchise tie-in. In medium close-up, with a gun to his head, he admits with a laugh: “No. Sorry. I still don’t get it.” The camera comically zooms in on his ignorant expression. Mary Ann Doane writes of how the zoom shot “combines … and manufactures scale … blatantly and without shame”; in doing so, it flattens depths and eradicates capaciousness, leaving us no place to stand together. Just as Slattery is ignorant to the scale of his misdeeds, the actor is oblivious to the scale of the scene, the film, and the franchise. What are actors even talking about? the film seems to ask. And why do we let them talk so much?
Yet, Marvel’s meditations on the actor have shifted, with the motif of role-playing in WandaVision (Jac Schaeffer, 2021) and now, again, with the Disney+ limited series, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law (Jessica Gao, 2022). Jennifer Walters (Tatiana Maslany) is in many ways the anti-Slattery: principled where he is morally bankrupt, adorable where he is sleazy. But her direct addresses to the camera (“I smash fourth walls and bad endings and sometimes Matt Murdoch [Daredevil],” she cracks), together with her being a trial attorney ripped from a 1980s Network television multiverse, mark her as an actor of sorts. Maslany—as Walters, as Hulk, as whomever—even delivers an impression of the stilted, wooden performances of superheroines of yore. “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t want to make me angry,” she recites with all the feeling and gravitas of Chris Pratt acting opposite a green-screen alien. As the show itself argues, all women are She-Hulks, simmering with rage, and some women are better actors than others.
It is also in the show’s hyper-meta finale that Marvel confronts its own tricky relationship to fan service, its desire to serve its die-hard demographic without betraying the big picture “phases” it has booked years into the future. At this point in the series, Jennifer “She Hulk” Walters has had enough. Humiliated by a gang of incel trolls who provoke her into a public “Hulk out,” she proceeds to lose everything: her job, her dignity, even her powers. “This isn’t even a reluctant superhero story—I’m just getting screwed over. Is this what you guys want?” she asks.
In response to her savage treatment by the narrative, Walters-as-She-Hulk kicks her way out of the Disney+ interface, itself peopled with recognizable actor-characters, and wiggles her way out of her own show. She breezes through the writers’ room, strides across the studio lot, and confronts Marvel’s President and prime architect Kevin Feige, who is, in fact, a robot named K.E.V.I.N. Walters says that her story cannot be resolved with a third-act plot dump and an elaborate fight sequence: her arc is that of accepting the Hulk within. “Those are my stakes,” she pleads with K.E.V.I.N. But is it Walters talking? Or She-Hulk? Or Maslany? K.E.V.I.N. replies that he leaves quality control “up to the internet,” and if social media has taught us anything about pop culture, it’s that people love good actors as hard as they mock mediocre movies and shows. (Exhibit A, as TV lawyers like to say: last year’s Florence Pugh star vehicle, the Olivia Wilde tire fire, Don’t Worry Darling.)
If Trevor Slattery is Marvel’s attempt to humorously dismantle the cult of the actor in the key of Falstaff, Jennifer Walters affords respect to the performer, with a wink and a nudge. She-Hulk treats the actor as a goofy gift to the Marvel super-online contingent. And yet, even the fans know not to trust the fans, which is sort of the moral of a show in which the villains are a dangerous group of message board haters. No smart, fast-talking broad—or studio—would unconditionally defer to the very internet that birthed the Manosphere, Alex Jones, and Nick Fuentes. In that case, why not just hand the power right back whence it came? Marvel acknowledges the viewer, anticipates the critique, critiques the critique, spoofs the critique, lets us in, boots us out, and rolls credits littered with Easter eggs. It’s as cute and brilliant and exhausting as a one-on-one dinner with Tony Stark.
Walters ends the show on her own, highly conditional, terms but is promptly warned: “You will not be able to access the K.E.V.I.N. again. That error on our platform has been fixed.” All signs point to art imitating life. At the time of publication, Disney has yet to renew She-Hulk for a second season.
Actors live in their own little worlds, so the backlash to Jeremy Strong and his ilk would suggest. But what is the alternative if not still and stony-faced actors and audiences trusting that the robot executives will add it all in post? We zoom in close, and scale collapses into nothing. Any shared “space [we] might inhabit,” as Doane writes—be it aesthetic, political, or otherwise—dissolves into dust with the snap of Disney’s bejeweled fingers.
Annie Berke is the film editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books and author of Their Own Best Creations: Women Writers in Postwar Television. Her essays and criticism have been published in Literary Hub, Public Books, Camera Obscura, Ms., and The Washington Post.
Image credit: Trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (James Gunn, 2023).